One of the great things about the stimulus program is the sheer breadth of it. In my effort to get behind the numbers and see first hand the impact of stimulus on the citizens of this state, I have been to nearly every sort of project – from building a new sewage treatment plant in Fairhaven to putting in new sewer lines in Framingham to helping a career center in Pittsfield to helping to fight poverty in Plymouth to building a new bridge in Lawrence – and every one of these visits not only helps me to do my job better but also gives me a renewed appreciation for how the people in this state use the stimulus funds and work hard to make Massachusetts a much better place to be.
My most recent visit to Lynn Economic Opportunity or LEO for short, is a perfect example. This anti-poverty agency is trying to do everything it can to help address the needs of the significant indigent population in this city. Ann-Marie Karianas, the agency’s COO told me that as soon as they heard about the stimulus program everyone at the agency started planning for ways that they could put the money to good use.
They seem to have figured it out. Stimulus helped LEO hire a housing search worker to help the homeless and two health advocates to help parents and their children, a day labor program was developed and a teen anti-violence program and a whole new IT infrastructure was put in place. They got an early Head Start program going -- and a new building for it that Jack Mogielnicki, the agency’s executive director, told me he had purchased that morning (with stimulus funds and bank loan) -- and they were able to increase their weatherization program.
“This was a great opportunity to make these programs come into fruition,” Karianas told me.
Randy Comito, who runs LEO’s weatherization program, emphasized to me how the opportunities LEO got impact so many other people. His program trained two new auditors and then they doubled the number of contractors they use – from four crews to eight. And then there are the suppliers they are ordering from and the people they are helping. “A lot of people are more comfortable in their homes and safer. It’s been amazing,” he told me.
What amazed me is how LEO is helping people of all ages. Christine Berchoff, the new Early Head Start site manager, told me she can’t wait to move into the new building and really start helping the youngest of Lynn’s neediest. Amy Verdun, the Early Head Start manager, told me they’re doing family services on home visits now but they’ll be able to accommodate 84 kids in the new center and they’ll be hiring 15 new teachers to staff it. She emphasized the importance of quality childcare for the very young and I couldn’t agree more. “Some of these Head Start kids will end up going to college and they wouldn’t otherwise,” added Jack. I know he’s right.
Terrell Patterson is trying to catch these kids as they start growing up. He is running the agency’s new teen anti violence program and he told me gang violence is a big problem in this city. LEO is trying to combat it with a drop-in center from 2 to 6 in the afternoons -- “Our focus now is keeping the younger kids from joining the gangs,” Jack told me -- where they provide the kids with everything from tutoring to discussions to art classes to field trips and above all, a safe place for them to be.
And then there is the day labor program, which is helping unemployed people in the city find work. Mike McNamara, one of its coordinators (who was unemployed himself before he got this job) told me that they had 500 people fill out applications already and they are trying to help everyone. One story keeps him going, he told me, that of a homeless man who was living in a shelter. The day labor program helped this man get a steady full time job in a manufacturing plant and he just bought an apartment in Lynn.
Jack said something to me then that has really stuck. He said you have to appreciate the success stories, and he’s right. The poverty can seem relentless but it is agencies like LEO that are chipping away at its impact and making a real difference in so many people’s lives.
I also appreciate -- and frankly am in awe of -- these people who are on the front lines in this fight against poverty on a daily basis. I’m thrilled stimulus can help them in their efforts to fight the good fight and improve people’s lives.